The Myth: It's Only a "Cat-fight"

The Myth: It's Only a "Cat-fight"

“At some point just about every woman realizes that she is seen not only as not-good-enough but also as a threat, that some person wishes to eliminate her from competition while another seeks to engage her in it – both situations indicate pernicious rivalry. Unwelcome competition satisfies neither the inventor of the competition nor its object, neither of whom probably feels strong. If ever cooperation should be substituted for competition, it should be in such a situation. Sadly, lack of self-confidence, which engenders senseless competition, also render collaboration difficult.”    
 -N.E. Painter

It’s only a “cat-fight!” Hey, it’s nothing! I’m sure it’s not serious. They’re just being difficult – typical female behavior. 

As a woman, have you either seen, and/or been the recipient of rivalrous behaviors from another woman within the working environment? You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s what people often call a “cat-fight?” I have, and it isn’t pretty. It can be raw, ugly, confusing, and to say the least, very painful.

Rivalry between women within an organizational setting can completely disrupt an environment. Aggression as a behavior has many appearances and manifestations and is portrayed by action or words.  It can be triggered by violence, anger, hostility, or an emotional response. Women feel anger the same as men do but often portray it in a different manner, using different strategies of aggression. Males are more physically aggressive, exhibiting overt, direct behaviors, while females traditionally resort to more indirect forms of behavior, less physical in nature.

As defined by Dr. Bjorkqvist, Professor of Developmental Psychology, indirect aggression is, “when social skills develop, even more sophisticated strategies of aggression are made possible, with the aggressor being able to harm a target person without even being identified.” 


So… tell me more about these so-called “cat’-fights.” We all know how dramatic women can be. They just need to get over it!

Well, actually you are wrong, there is more to these acts than what meets the eye. Within a working environment, there is a unique pattern that indirect aggressive behavior tends to follow. If you have been a receiver and/or observed this type of behavior, the following scenarios may be very familiar to you.

Often, especially in the beginning, the subdued manner of indirect aggressive behavior is difficult to pinpoint and not overtly tangible. 

You may ask yourself any of the following...

Is this actually occurring? Why is this occurring? What did I do? Why doesn’t she like me? This isn’t real… 

The experience may begin as something barely noticeable to you and very much not noticeable to anyone else. This understated action can be tricky to navigate, even if you want to confront the other woman, there may not be enough proof or specific evidence to actually reveal the behavior. 

Am I crazy?  Did she really do that? No, she didn’t. I imagined that.

You begin to doubt yourself, feel unsure, and question your professional competence. Over time and as this type of behavior increases, it may become noticeable to your co-workers. Your co-workers may or may not support you. If they are concerned about their own position and/or fearful of the behavior turning on them, they may very well ignore or even side with the other woman. 

What did I do to them? Why don’t they believe me or stand up for me? Don’t they see what is going on? How can anyone miss this crazy behavior, and what she is doing to me?

Within your organization it may be difficult to know who to trust or who to confide in. The behavior may go unaddressed, primarily if you do not know where to go or who to turn to. 

 Who will believe me? She has been here forever, worked her way up to the top, and everyone seems to love her. I have gained my experience elsewhere and am still fairly new to this organization. I don’t want to lose my job – I can’t afford to lose my job! I also can’t keep working like this. I am so unhappy.

You may feel like you are walking on eggshells, and have to be careful about everything you say or do. The aggressive acts may leave you feeling completely drained, guarded, and alone. Additionally, as the behavior increases, it may be so startling and abrupt that it catches you off guard and leaves you unaware as how to handle the situation. You may feel isolated and begin to withdrawal. Ultimately a situation like this will influence your sense of self, professionally, personally and lead to a variety of negative emotions. 

How can she get away with this type of behavior? Why doesn’t anyone say or do anything about it? This is a very scary feeling. This is lonely. HR wants me to document these occurrences and then bring it back to them. I don’t think the HRC believed my story... I can’t stay here this long to document them; I have to leave. I just can’t take this anymore. I feel sick to my stomach. I can’t sleep. I am anxious. I have lost my joy.


There is a general awareness of rivalry between women, commonly, often jokingly, referred to as “cat-fights.” The term in itself, discredits the seriousness of the situation. It is a silent epidemic. Silent in the aspect that women who are recipients of this type of behavior often do not speak about their experience until it is behind them, or near to being over. Silent in the fact that there is often awareness by others about the behavior as it is occurring, but traditionally it is not overtly dealt with until after the fact, if ever. 

Indirect aggressive behavior is devious in nature, the approach artful. It is not as blatant as direct aggression. The other woman, the originator of the behavior is more often than not, fully aware of what she is doing.


Aggressive acts of behavior are traditionally targeted toward an acquaintance, rather than a stranger. Rivalry is a component of aggressive behavior. Indirect aggressive behavior is a component of an aggressive act. Indirect aggressive behaviors within the working environment fall into the category of women failing to help each other. These types of behaviors do not support empowerment or solidarity for women. 

The environment in which the women work is a direct attribute of the behavioral outcomes. The “cat-fights” affect more than just the two women directly involved. They affect the entire working environment. The negative behavior is infectious; if left unaddressed it can influence the morale of the entire group. If organizations address these actions candidly, while they are occurring, better understanding of underlying root causes to why this type of behavior takes place can be openly discussed. 

What can you do if you are experiencing this type of behavior?

If you are experiencing rivalry in the working environment from another woman, please know, you have options. I help women navigate through these negative behaviors via personalized coaching sessions. I also speak to women’s groups and organizations about this important topic. Visit my website, or email me at

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